Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 95: A review of Ed Wood's "From Birthday Suits to Shrouds" (1971)

Despite its ghoulish title, this story is mostly about clothing.

Blenders do more than blend.
A good blender does not just blend. It also stirs, chops, grinds, mixes, purees, and liquefies. It serves multiple purposes in order to justify its existence. And so, too, must a professional writer, especially a freelancer who needs to sell his work quickly and regularly.

Fittingly, then, Edward D. Wood, Jr. had multiple modes or settings as an author. He could be salacious, explicit, ghoulish, sadistic, grim, gritty, dreamy, wistful, woozy, philosophical, even darkly humorous. Whatever the subject matter demanded of him,  really. But of all Eddie's modes, there is none closer to my heart than "professorial." This is the style he adopts when his ostensible goal is to educate or enlighten his audience.

How do I explain this mode? Well...

In a 2000 episode of The Simpsons called "Days of Wine and D'oh'ses," lifelong alcoholic Barney Gumble is horrified to see footage of himself getting drunk at a party and lecturing a clearly uncomfortable Lisa, age 8, about his vision of an afterlife where everyone is segregated by nationality. ("I'm just sayin' that when we die, there's gonna be a planet for the French, a planet for the Chinese, and we'll all be a lot happier.") The child backs as far away from him as possible on the couch where they are both seated. When she says Barney is upsetting her, he assures her that he isn't. This does not help.

"Gee," Barney remarks to Homer while reviewing the embarrassing tape, "is that what I look like when I'm drunk?"

"You wish!" Homer cheerfully replies. "That's the stage we call 'Professor Barney' -- talkative, coherent, even insightful! Here's drunk!"

Homer then advances the tape to a truly humiliating scene in which a completely blitzed, delusional Barney dresses up as Marge and falls over the banister and onto the floor, where he proceeds to lick spilled alcohol out of the shag carpeting. Not a proud moment, even by the low standards of Springfield.

"Professor Barney" vs. "Drunk Barney" on The Simpsons.

Come to think of it, between the alcoholism and the cross-dressing, Ed Wood and Barney Gumble might have had a lot in common. Notably, both Barney and Eddie demonstrated their "professorial" modes from time to time, the latter more so than the former. In 2006, Ramble House even reprinted some of Eddie's old works under the titles Professor Wood's Sex Museum and Professor Wood's Sex Crimes.

Eddie occasionally reverts to "professorial" mode in his film scripts. You can hear it whenever he has a know-it-all narrator, like Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell) in Glen or Glenda (1953) or the pompous, unseen storyteller of The Young Marrieds (1973), explain to the audience the deep significance of what we're seeing. This is Eddie at his most earnest and thoughtful but also at his most awkward. Never is his syntax more tortured. Never are his metaphors more maladroit. Certain of Wood's characters, mainly authority figures like cops, doctors, judges, and military officers, are allowed to lecture the audience as well.

But to truly appreciate "Professor Eddie" to the fullest, you have to dip into the writer's nonfiction books and articles. This is where Ed Wood gave free reign to his latent pedagogical tendencies. And today's story is a perfect example.

A burial shroud.
The story: "From Birthday Suits to Shrouds," originally published in Flesh & Fantasy, vol. 4, no. 4 (1971).

Synopsis: We may come into this world naked, but clothing soon becomes an integral part of our lives. In the old days, people only dressed up on Sundays and spent the rest of the week wearing durable work clothes. Nowadays, however, both men and women have become more style-conscious, and clothes have become an expensive habit for many.

Clothing also plays a crucial role in our sex lives. As women's fashion has evolved, more and more men are favoring feminine attire over the traditional masculine suits, while some women have chosen to wear men's clothes. Male transvestites, however, should not be confused with homosexuals. Most male cross-dressers are staunch heterosexuals, and many are happily married to understanding women. In the past, the police have taken a dim view of cross-dressing, leading some transvestites to commit suicide. Thankfully, outdated laws like these are being eliminated in places like California.

For fetishists, an item of clothing made from a particular material like angora, leather, or wool can be tremendously important during the sex act -- more so, even, than a human partner! Specific textures and odors can be highly stimulating to some. While fur has long been a status symbol for women because of its high price, it has far greater significance for the fetishist. Some can even achieve orgasm simply by rubbing up against a fur.

Clothing serves a practical purpose, since it protects us from the elements. But it means much more to us than that. For one thing, the proper outfit can accentuate the curves of a woman's body. And as a nation of voyeurs, we love to watch one another undress. The next time you see a man walking down the street, you might wonder if his outfit has any sexual connotations... or if he has women's panties under his suit!

Wood trademarks: Shrouds (cf. Sex, Shrouds and Caskets, "Dracula Revisited"); fixation on death and burial (cf. "Into My Grave"); clothing equated with "life itself" (cf. Glen or Glenda); "rough, tough exterior" (compare to Glenda's "Would you be surprised to know that this rough, tough individual was wearing pink satin undies under his rough exterior clothing?"); men wearing women's clothing (cf. "Drag It Out"); women wearing men's clothing (cf. "The Fright Wigs"); insistence that transvestites are not homosexuals (cf. Glen or Glenda); transvestites being persecuted by the law (cf. Glenda); link between cross-dressing and productivity (cf. Glenda); angora sweaters, plus sweaters in general (cf. many stories in Angora Fever and Blood Splatters Quickly); rise of sex and nudity in films (cf. "That's Show Biz," "What Would We Have Done Without Them?"); "love partner" (cf. "Sex Star," "The Movie Queen").

Excerpt: "History shows us that Joan of Arc was most assuredly a transvestite in that she wore male attire throughout her short but fantastic career. And the courts upon condemning her to death in the fire added the complete insult to her by having her leave this world wearing a dress."

Another Shroud-y day for Ed Wood.
Reflections: If, as the old saying has it, a fanatic is someone who won't change his mind and won't change the subject, then Edward D. Wood, Jr. was indeed a fanatic when it came to cross-dressing. Strong language, yes, but what other term will do? Women's clothing simply consumed his thinking. He would steer seemingly any conversation toward that topic, even if it were not convenient to do so. This article, for instance, is ostensibly about clothing in general and the importance it has in all our lives. But with Eddie at the helm, there is only one possible destination on the horizon.

Nearly two decades had elapsed since Glen or Glenda, but Ed was still writing about the same basic themes contained in that seminal film. The main difference is that, since "From Birthday Suits to Shrouds" appeared in a pornographic magazine, Ed could now be more graphic about the specific role women's clothing played in his sex life. "[T]o those transvestites we also find a heavy emphasis on masturbation," he writes. "The clothing alone can be their sex partner with perhaps a good deal of narcissism."

The same particulars are here, too. Every viewer of Ed Wood knows about the man's angora fetish, and the superfans know about Eddie's love of silk, satin, and nylon. But "From Birthday Suits to Shrouds" adds a couple of fabrics to the list, namely mohair and brushed wool. Offhand, I can't remember Eddie rhapsodizing about those in other stories or films.

Rubber and leather are briefly discussed here as well, probably because these fetishes are so well known to the general public. In Annie Hall (1977), for instance, Woody Allen gets a shock laugh by having a child declare, "I'm into leather." (A prophetic moment for the director? Certainly one that gives us pause today.) Imagine the audience's baffled reaction if Allen had directed the child to say, "I'm into angora."

Incidentally, don't let this article's spooky title mislead you. "From Birthday Suits to Shrouds" is not one of Eddie's horror-themed stories. Death was another of Ed Wood's career-long fixations, but the Grim Reaper is but a supporting player in this little episode.